Tangled wires:
How a 'great place to work'
became a target for federal prosecuters
John M. Collard, Chairman, Strategic Management Partners, Inc. was interim CEO for Network Technologies Group, Inc.
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John M. Collard, Chairman, Strategic Management Partners, Inc. was interim CEO for Network Technologies Group, Inc.
John M. Collard, Chairman, Strategic Management Partners, Inc. was interim CEO for Network Technologies Group, Inc.
Tangled wires:
How a 'great place to work' became a target for federal prosecuters
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by Larry Rulison, BBJ Staff
 

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Tangled wires:

How a 'great place to work' became a target for federal prosecuters

By Larry Rulison, BBJ Staff
February 14, 2003
Terry Mayo thought he had finally found the perfect place to work when he landed a job at Network Technologies Group Inc. in 2000.

John M. Collard, Chairman, Strategic Management Partners, Inc. was interim CEO for Network Technologies Group, Inc.
'This is the worst [situation] that I've been in because this was dead before I walked in,' says NTG's John M. Collard

"You couldn't wait to get to work each day, we loved it," said Mayo, who was director of executive support at NTG. "Everything was business, business, business. I thought it was the last job I was ever going to have."

As it turns out, NTG was not as great a company as employees, the public even savvy investors believed. When the Fells Point telecommunications firm collapsed in July amid an accounting scandal, it came to symbolize for Baltimore all that ruined the technology boom of the late 1990s greed, alleged corruption and broken promises.

"It busted a lot of dreams," Mayo said. "I'm sure there were a lot of people who really got crushed."

All told, 125 people lost their jobs July 12 when NTG was shut down by interim CEO John Collard. The Annapolis consultant was hired by the NTG board June 28, the day CEO Michele Tobin resigned. She told employees she was leaving because she had cancer.

Within days of her departure, Collard said he uncovered major financial problems and accounting fraud. An investigation by federal authorities led to the indictment last month of four NTG officers including company founders Tobin and Victor Giordani Jr. on 10 counts of fraud in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The Business Journal interviewed a half dozen former NTG executives and managers who said they weren't aware of the company's financial problems until it failed.

"It was a shock," said one former vice president who asked not to be identified. "I actually thought we were going to make it, and most of us were led to believe it. We were never led to believe that the company wasn't going to be around."

Love and betrayal

Former employees say NTG's collapse was so hard to take because they loved working there. They said that not only were they paid well, but there was a tremendous amount of camaraderie at NTG, much of it fostered by Giordani, a former Bell Atlantic employee who was chief operating officer at NTG.

Most of NTG's labor force included construction workers who laid telecommunications cable underground for customers that included Comcast Corp., WorldCom and AT&T Corp. in Maryland and four other states. A smaller group of managers and executives worked out of NTG's corporate offices in Fells Point and often huddled together brainstorming in the office or over meals.

James Bacastow, a former manager who reported directly to Giordani and considers him a friend, said NTG provided a great work environment. He said his work day often started at 6 a.m. and went well past 6 p.m., but he didn't mind.

"It was a great place to work. It was probably too good," Bacastow said. "I liked what I was doing. I was treated exceptionally well. Paid very well. Certainly things didn't end up on the best of notes."

Others say they were given a lot of freedom by a hands-off management team as long as they hit their sales or budget numbers, something they say is rare in the construction industry.

"We were rocking and rolling," said Gene Rainaldi, a former project manager at NTG. "It was just one of those small percentage of opportunities to wake up and go to a job you liked."

Still, former employees interviewed for this story said in hindsight there were rumblings that the company was in trouble. Anthony Russell, a former facilities manager at NTG, said he now realizes there were clues that NTG was having financial difficulty as early as January 2002. Russell says his paycheck bounced that month.

"Nobody at the office said anything. You had to find out from your bank," said Russell, who worked there for four years. "You kind of figured something was going on, the sort of stuff that throws up red flags."

According to court documents and interviews with employees, NTG stopped paying for many fringe benefits in the final months it was in business.

Payments to CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield ended in May, and child-support payments and 401k contributions were misplaced in the months before the company shut down. No one was paid for the last three weeks of work.

Russell is still upset because he has not been able to get to the $12,000 he still has in the NTG 401k plan. The plan was frozen shortly after the company's collapse when Collard discovered that nearly $40,000 in employee contributions was missing. Collard has filed a claim with NTG's insurance company to try to recover the money.

"It's just a matter of getting that last bit of NTG out of me so I can move forward," Russell said.

Collard enters the fray

NTG began to unravel shortly after Tobin resigned from the company June 28. The NTG board, made up of investors and officers like Giordani, hired Collard an expert on turning around troubled companies to lead the firm on an interim basis and to find a new CEO.

Collard started working at NTG July 1, and within hours, he said he discovered accounting problems. Within days, he said he uncovered fraud. Collard was fighting for the company's life, trying to convince NTG's bank, Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co., to keep money flowing. But the company was in too much debt, and Mercantile wouldn't allow it. On July 11, the NTG board met and decided the company would close.

Collard said the board gave him no indication just how bad the company's problems were.

"This is the worst [situation] that I've been in because this was dead before I walked in," he said. "Let's face it, this was an insolvent company."

Collard figured NTG employees would be so angry at him for closing the company that he had several Baltimore City police officers in place at NTG's headquarters the morning of July 12. Collard broke the news that the company was being shut down. But a strange thing happened. Instead of ringing Collard's neck, a worker came up to Collard and reached for his hand.

"He sincerely shook my hand and he said, 'I really want to thank you. You are the first person in a year or two that has been honest with us.' That conversation had to happen at least 10 times," Collard said.

The feds step in

One day after the company's closure, the U.S. Attorney and the FBI in Baltimore began investigating NTG and seized computers, company records and bank checks and statements. On Jan. 22, a federal grand jury indicted Tobin and Giordani. Also indicted was Beverly Baker, NTG's former controller, and Thomas Bray, the former chief financial officer.

Baker and Giordani have pleaded not guilty, but Tobin and Bray have not yet appeared in court. All four face 30 years in jail and a $1 million fine for each count of fraud.

The indictment alleges that the four provided false financial statements to Mercantile, which gave NTG a $3.5 million line of credit. It also says they deceived local investment bank Ferris, Baker Watts Inc., which represented NTG in securing $1.75 million from Smith Whiley & Co., a Connecticut investment firm, and Baltimore's Abell Foundation, through the sale of convertible preferred stock in March 2002. In both cases, company officials made it look like the company was more profitable than it was by hiding liabilities and inflating the company's assets.

Focus on Tobin

Much of the intrigue of the NTG scandal has swirled around Tobin, who sold her Baltimore County home and left for Colorado shortly after NTG folded.

NTG's roots began with Tobin and Giordani, who started the firm in 1997 as Network Technologies Group LLC. Before teaming to start NTG, Tobin was a former vice president with Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and Giordani was a longtime Bell Atlantic employee.

In 1998, the Abell Foundation in Baltimore wanted to invest in NTG, but it wouldn't put its money into a limited liability company, according to NTG officials, so Tobin and Giordani incorporated in Delaware, creating Network Technologies Group Inc. Abell invested $1.5 million in NTG in January 1999. The limited liability company was kept, however, and the entity was used to pay part-time laborers, and as government prosecutors now allege to defraud the bank and investors.

Although the Business Journal has been unable to reach Tobin for comment, she has left a paper trail since she resigned from NTG. Tobin filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Colorado in December. In those documents, she was required to reveal personal and financial information in painstaking detail. Her attorney, Joseph "Wick" Sollers, declined to comment.

Tobin's bankruptcy has also shed light on her departure from NTG. Shortly before resigning, Tobin told employees she had "terminal cancer of multiple types," according to a document Collard filed in Tobin's bankruptcy case.

"On the last day, it was nothing but tears," said one former employee.

In that bankruptcy filing, Collard also alleges that Tobin took more than $400,000 in company money without permission and funneled it through various companies, including Network Technologies Group LLC and Healthcare Technology Support a firm Tobin claims she owns in bankruptcy documents.

The federal indictment claims that Tobin diverted payments from NTG customers into the bank account of Network Technologies Group LLC, a separate company, as a way of hiding money from Mercantile when NTG had overdrawn its line of credit at the bank.

The fallout from NTG

Some in Baltimore's technology community say that despite the fact that NTG wasn't a pure technology company, its collapse has had a detrimental effect on local tech firms and their ability to raise capital.

"This company was able to take significant advantage of investors in an apparently fraudulent way. That certainly hurts the technology community," said Jason D. Hardebeck, CEO of WhoGlue Inc., a Fells Point Internet technology firm located near NTG's former offices.

At the very least, there are a lot of angry people around Baltimore who have been hurt by the NTG scandal. Hardebeck says he has been threatened twice by "irate" NTG vendors who thought he was Collard and cornered him in his parking lot.

"They demanded to be paid, and once I even had to produce ID before they'd let me pass," Hardebeck said.



2003 American City Business Journals Inc.

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